Trolling away…

Is this sort of behaviour from Nadine Dorries (MP for Mid-Bedfordshire) an example of trolling?

What about this tweet from Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan?

I ask because in Ye Olde Days ‘to troll’ meant to post provocative content, often repeatedly, to fish for reactions. What Dorries and Hannan are doing above matches my understanding of “troll” in the early days of messageboards and chat-rooms. Neither example fits into what I understand to be the “new” definition, which could be leading us into trouble.

I appreciate language moves on and develops on-line and off, which is why we say “apps” and “ghost town” rather than “programmes” and “Google +”. But how has troll been adapted and adopted so much that it appears to have become the go-to buzzword for any kind of negative behaviour? Or for that matter any kind of perceived bad behaviour? I don’t remember the day when the definition flipped from ‘mild irritant’ to ‘anybody swearing on the Internet’, and I don’t believe it’s particularly helpful for debate to have the new definition continue unchecked.

As with David Cameron’s attempt to tackle on-line porn with a belief that everything from a thirty-second wanking video to a full three-hour HD clusterfruitcake is the same thing (and therefore MUST BE BANNED *pitchfork*), I fear some people are confusing and conflating all manner of different Internet character traits into one big blob of negativity for the sake of advancing a cause they don’t fully understand. Indeed there’s a danger that those shouting “TROLL” are guilty of trolling themselves, refusing to countenance debate and blocking anybody who questions their logic. It’s a very difficult task to balance defiance with diligence and often those who refuse to enter conversations can be those who shout loudest about fairness, freedom of expression, and the right to free speech.

Let’s be honest about the level of debate on-line, particularly Twitter. It’s not great. This is not quite how the Greeks would have imagined democratic discourse. People get very angry behind keyboards for all manner of reasons – they think the laptop screen is a defense shield, they think the keyboard gives them special powers, they think the Internet is a “leveller”, making celebs, MPs and the like fair game for talking to like anybody else. It’s another “fine line” argument; to what extent to we allow people to swear, insult and flail about and what is the acceptable cut-off point between acceptable responses and unacceptable content?

Calling David Cameron a “cock”, a “cunt”, and a “ham-faced wanker” each and every time he posts a tweet has swiftly become a national hobby. It’s rude and crude and all the rest of it, but it’s generally harmless. It’s not trolling to automatically reach for the f-word, in my opinion, even if it’s right to call it rather childish and unproductive. If you want to discuss the rights and wrongs of D-Cam there are other places to do so on-line, and often with the space to fully express your opinions. The race to be first in an Internet argument has created an unfortunate situation whereby detailed responses are becoming increasingly rare, reducing many discussions into “bad verses good”, “yes verses no”, “right verses wrong” slanging matches. It’s little wonder that the insult “troll” has become just as easy to reach for as “wanker” in places such as Twitter where every letter counts.

But shutting down a conversation/debate/argument with “Whatever, you’re just a troll, bye” is insolence and childishness. The conflation and confusion in the changing definition of “troll” means that it’s all too easy for those idiots who threaten sexual abuse to innocent women to become associated with harmless people who just want an proper debate. It’s much harder to access politicians and celebrities if they use ‘troll’ to mean anybody who dares question their opinion. The Internet would not last long as a place to share ideas and opinions if the high-ups conclude that anyone who tries to debate is piss-taker or potential abuser.

It can mean the act of willingly taking the mickey for fun, just being silly, or poking the hornet’s nest. This is why we have to be careful about using it to justify policing the net.

What Caroline Criado-Perez has gone through just because she lobbied the Bank of England to accept Jane Austen on a banknote is the worst example of abuse. To be threatened with rape because of her campaign is basement level idiocy, grotesque and gruesome. Nobody should have to suffer such an onslaught of knuckle-dragging cuckoo-bananas lunacy. I have no doubt that many of her critics are idiots and trouble-makers without a genuine point to make if they had 1,000 days to think of one. Idiots of the highest order are acting like keyboard warriors, sending bomb threats to journalists for a cheap laugh, much in the same child-like manner that people make prank calls to the police. It’s not a “cheap laugh” at all for the people who have to suffer the constant flow of sludge into their inboxes.

All this said this is where my default position kicks in. I have always felt uneasy whenever I hear about added regulations against free speech. There’s a very serious argument to be had about the future policing of the Internet, whether or not it ends up led by a highly committed group of female rights campaigners with Parliamentary support. I cherish the freedom of speech and right to reply which the Internet allows, just as I cherish the need to fight back against abusive behaviour. This debate may redefine the Internet in the UK forever, which is why I hope we can agree on what exactly “trolling” is before everybody gets the Internet they wished for…

Advertisements

very angry internet

“The Internet does not create social outcasts,” started the line I first heard in the mid-1990s. “It collects  them.”

It’s been quite a week for reeling out the wise old sayings and maxims, from “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to “Never trust a moose to buy a round of drinks”. Or something. To dust off another tired old phrase – “he’s the kind of person who could have an argument in an empty room” – and there’s no more larger collection of empty rooms that the internet outside abandoned building projects in the greater Dublin area. As long as there’s been message-boards and chatrooms there’s been Internet users ready and willing to flame a debate in a flurry of pedantry, insults, defamation and ‘your mom’ jibes. You’re not likely to be more than three clicks of a mouse away from a choice Anglo-Saxon swear word or twelve, be it within the swamps of YouTube comment sections, newspaper story reaction threads or  Twitter.

It’s the microblogging tweeters which have attracted the most attention from the mainstream media this year, to the extent that it appears the BBC and Daily Mail consider themselves to have coined the word “troll”. With trolling becoming the issue of the day for the guardians of good taste and decency, misunderstanding of the realities of everyday Internet use will doubtlessly grow, and from there comes bad law and reactionary mistakes.

With millions of people reacting in real time to every event happening around the world, be it waiting at a bus stop or watching the men’s 100m final (spoiler alert, Americans, Usain Bolt wins), Twitter never stops displaying the thoughts of everyone and anyone within easy reach of a keyboard. It should be obvious to anyone that little corners of Twitter will therefore get testy and tetchy, especially when dealing with those parts of the real world which seems so far away and distant – namely politics and celebrity. People always feel a buzz of starlight and success in the presence of celebrity or power, which is why so many Twitter users rush to get a reply, re-tweet or just a mere mention from someone whose face appears in the newspapers every so often. The Press can examine this as much as they exploit – themselves trolling the search function for enough insults and criticisms to fill a page of orchestrated outrage.

As anyone who’s ever worked in an office will tell you, email and the Internet are considered “great levellers”, enabling people with a slight grievance to email the head of department or supervisors in real time about (and I’m using real examples from my own office life here), the choice of music on a CD player brought in for the Christmas period, the eating of paté at lunch, and requests to take time off for “boyfriend problems”. The consequence of this can be a lack of common sense to the point of sheer lunacy, seen sporadically in message-board rants, seen almost by the minute in foul mouthed, racist or generally violent tweets to celebrities, television presenters or the like. I can see both sides – if a celebrity joins Twitter they should expect both fans and foes, but how does the ‘leveller’ of the Internet justify specifically targeting a presenter for being, say, fat, or boring, or ugly, or too Asian, and how many idiots do we allow to act this way before acting ourselves?

Britain already has laws against malicious behaviour on-line, some of it going back decades to an age when the Internet was talked about without the definite article and nobody had ever considered it likely that the computer in the corner of the room would be used at 2am for watching repeats of QI on YouTube. There’s no real need for additional laws against trolling to be drafted, though it’s tempting to risk it just to see how legalese translates ‘trolling’ into parliamentary language. “Trolls” can encompass all manner of on-line behaviour, not just wishing Tom Daley would be drowned or calling a British Muslim television presenter pub-chant insults. I’m sure some people will gladly call those users who type “FIRST!” underneath newspaper articles “trolls” just to see them woken up at 5am by the finest members of Inspector Knacker’s Computer Corps. Additionally, it could be worth a quick call to the Malicious Computer Behaviour Advisory Group (see, I’m already guessing how parliament might have to transliterate these sorts of things) every time an American calls a Briton “douchebag” in the YouTube comments sections underneath sporting highlight clips.

The fact is – we don’t need additional laws curbing Internet use, Twitter behaviour or blog opinions. By focussing on Twitter, the media are in danger of allowing the rest of the Internet to fester all the more than it already is, and that’s the very definition of the law of unintended consequences. Stretch the net further and you’ll find 4chan (and we all know about that, don’t we), the Daily Mail (ditto, for the same reasons by and large) and Facebook’s campaigning groups division, for which there’s no moral outrage too trivial that can’t be turned into a mawkish flag of life changing importance. There’s no feasible way, short of closing the Internet completely, for every page and every comment to be policed, not least because so little can be easily captured or searched, and as I said before, the ‘great leveller’ of the Internet provokes the most enthused argumenter to waft around “freedom of speech” justification at every turn. Arresting a student for insulting an Olympic diver whilst approximately a hypergazillion people wish death by cancer on approximately an additional hypergazillion in YouTube comments sections seems a little like trophy hunting to me.

I’m not being fatalistic; the Internet can be polices, and despite being a fence-sitting free-speech loving treehugger I accept that some frameworks must be erected to catch the worst forms of insulting or violent behaviour. But from this must come reason and restraint – is it ‘malicious’ that some sites host videos of alleged shooting massacres in Iraq or Syria, shared by some people who campaign for justice in the Middle East and shared by others who just like watching gore and extreme violence? How much legalese do we want to slalom around the distinction between “genuine” and “fake” reasons for sharing around violent videos of this kind? If we learned anything from the ‘Twitter joke trail’, the written word can be redefined howsoever an unintended audience member wishes. Will there be a legal definition drafted for sarcasm, irony, insult? What becomes of a joke when a barrister-turned-MP decides to analyse the definition for the purposes of statute law? If you watch a video in which a Libyan market trader is shot in the neck, do you watch it for pleasure, curiosity or research? What about porn?

The Internet can be a very angry place. You’re never too far away from people ‘swearing down’ that another person, or an institution, or an entire country, is going to feel his/her/their wrath. If we allow the current breed of Twitter trolls to lead the redefinition of on-line behaviour, we could end up with restrictions far beyond any feared by SOPA campaigners. I’m more angered that my mobile phone provider demands I ‘opt in’ to material it considers to be adult, and that this appears to have been largely accepted, than I am bothered by knowing that a celebrity television presenter is being called an ugly slut on Twitter. He/she/they can probably deal with that in their own way, or just stop using Twitter. There’s little chance of fighting back against censorship or state control if there’s restricted access to the very tools to carry out the job. Let’s treat all trolls as we would most permanently angry. I’d rather have an Internet with a few old man’s pubs occupied by barflies and world weary know-it-alls than one with minimal furnished see-and-be-seen bars where you walk around with fixed smiles and bitten tongues.

joke in search of a punchline

The internet likes its memes and tropes – giving kittens the language of human toddlers, putting ‘first’ at the bottom of newspaper comment columns, adapting kanji into emoticons (they’re so HIPSTER o(^-^)o)


As anyone who has analysed humour will testify, jokes are fragile creatures. Kenneth Williams would implore the importance of the punchline (“taaag, it’s all in the taaaag”); Danny Baker, Stephen Fry and Dave Gorman have all investigated how much like a fragile plant is the humble one-liner (“Dig it up to examine its roots the plant will die..”). Throw a penny into that particular pond and you’d never hear the splash – the ‘net will merrily permit its users to duplicate, replicate and murder every quip at the moment of birth. Such is humour – the joke you heard at the comedy club is the one you’ve just told at your office canteen, out into the world like so many butterflies. The important thing is the hit, the pay-off, the freshness and unexpected nature of which ensures the impact is never lost: the internet tends to dip the butterfly wings in varnish before setting them free. Up, up and…..run over by a mobility scooter.

“So Gazza turned up with a roast chicken and a fishing rod!” is one such pay-off which is deeper in the red than most Greek bank accounts. It may spew out from mainstream panel shows like baby sick, on-line communities have long since ruled (in that weird group-think Wikipedia excels in) that there’s more chance of getting a giggle from saying “Your mum!” and running off down the road. There was inherent surrealism, and thus humour, from the tragi-comic image at the time; it’s long since gone the way of most fads. Look out “#winning”, they’re coming for you next.

Like millions of people around the world, I watched the film Downfall in stunned silence – never knowing such an emotional film was to be hijacked by the Internet’s Culture and Humour Committee for a constant series of parodies which would define the phrase ‘diminishing return’. The infamous bunker scene, in which the ailing Hitler begins to realise the figures on his map have more life than the troops they represent, is the thousand-and-then-some duplicated subtitled meme sensation. Want Hitler to comment on your team’s latest signing, the latest film flop or a political scandal? Use Downfall, and watch Hitler garble your own subtitled outrage for much lulz and re-tweets.

Except, in reality, this doesn’t happen. Or it should not happen, at least as much, so successfully, because the Bunker parody is tired and old and unfunny. It has been misused, failing the basic test of humour. The tag, that vital element of a joke, has been flattened and squashed, with all the flavour of supermarket tortelloni. 



The Labour MP Tom Harris has been shunted out of his “Twitter tsar” role (whatever the heck that was) for posting a Downfall parody video related to the ongoing Scottish independence saga. Teh Grauniad calls him a “Twitter expert” which over eggs the pudding somewhat, though he is one of the few Labour MPs (or indeed any MP) who seems to naturally understand the microblogging service. Labour poster boy Chuka Umunna is one of the most high profile users who gives the impression of only typing what he’s told, not once engaging in discussions with people outside an acceptable check-list of contacts. Harris broke through the central party’s behaviour bubble to act like ordinary members of the public expected him to; insofar as ordinary people use Twitter, Harris behaved like one of them. To say he was “expert” is a bit much, to give him a formal role obviously too much as his colleagues continually failed to do more than type out press released. To sack him over a Downfall parody? No, I see no logic either.

The video he posted, as with so many of their kind, was dull, not the funniest, not particularly harmful to anyone’s cause. It was a bit of silly, Internet based japery. The sensitivity police have claimed another victim. However, even with that said, Harris probably could have said as much as he wanted to do with a blog, a series of tweets or even an interview – the video he posted was one of far, far too many polluting memes which damage the message and remove credibility. His sacking is an over reaction from a knee-jerk leadership. His video was a flinch from a dying corpse.

On-line humour has killed off old jokes harmlessly before (“I can see Russia from my…..Oh…”). It should see to the Downfall parodies as soon as it can – couple of gunshots and set it on fire. 

Mong the Merciless

So, another news story generated from Twitter. It’s as though journalism really is onto the final injections and long talks about inheritance, the way all this is going on.

In summary – yes, this is Ricky Gervais, whose brand of comedy thrives on awkwardness, subverting conventions and generally pushing people further and further in their pressure points. I am not without criticism towards Gervais as it is, particularly as the cross-over between creative genius and self-satisfaction occurred halfway through Extras and hasn’t been returned to since. But he can still be very funny and thought provoking….as we have all seen with this latest version of Twitter Generated Public Fury.

By using the word “mong” in a one-liner tweet, Gervais unleashed the usual InstaReply Corps. of Twitterati, the libertarians and PC-brigade, the professionally shocked and defenders of the free speech; all falling over each other in hurried attempts to prove themselves either more shocked or more in support than the last. Edifying? Well it hasn’t done much to save the general public from sounding like reactionary keyboard warriors, and I say that as  a blogger…

Is “mong” offensive? It’s been a while since my schooldays but even back then it was considered one of the harder swearwords, most likely to cause teachers to scowl and scold. But we giggled and guffawed all the same – as we did with “gay” and “spaz” and all the rest. It was a bog standard primary in the north, and we were very young, so every swear word and offensive term was scoffed up like sweets. They were bad words, naughty, and tempting. “Queer”, “Paki”, “wanker”.  How much joy it was to be alive with these terms on our tongues. “Retard”, “spastic”, “belm”.

Language alters and changes, all grammar leaks, and meanings of words develop and mould; any English language tutor can tell you that. “Gay” and for that matter “queer” are reclaimed by the homosexual community, leading to one classic Homer Simpson line (“That’s our word for you!”). And if you’re worried about “Paki”, then you needn’t worry one bit.

So why the on-line whom-a-flip over Gervais and his use of “mong”, or the way in which some celebrities have placed themselves on the side of the critics? In all fairness to Gervais (and it’s not as though he gives on single hoot), the term does carry provocative and offensive weight, one of the remaining slang terms which walks around with punch in its fists. It is related to many turns of phrase which have not been rescued by the cape of irony (“And then Mr Smith went full retard”, case in point). There is nothing in law or reason stopping Gervais from using the term in a joke, thank heavens, and long may there not be. The massed ranks of the “how dare you” brigade would do well to remember it’s a far better state we live in which allows him to use it.

However….and there will always be howevers…there are very good reasons why we have the offended mechanism hard wired into our brains. Jokes are not automatically funny by virtue of being jokes; “it’s all in the tag” as the comedian’s watchwords go. As Frankie Boyle has found to his cost, being offensive for the sake of it turns the person making the gags into a tiresome and predictable bore.  The hardest and most effective part of a joke, or indeed any turn of phrase, is the pay-off. That the tweet at the centre of all this centred on an offensive term misses the point; did the term itself assist the joke being effective?

We are told that children must be protected  –  from swearing, violence on TV, sexual content, explicit computer games.  We are told by certain reactionary quarters that adults too must be protected, that horses must never be scared, that naughty words and blue humour is outdated and boring. This age of political correctness and attitude of ‘we know best’ just has to be brought to an end. “Mong” will be a term that causes severe offence, of course it is, just as “spastic” must have done in the 1980s, but there was no legislation then to wean people off the term then and there sure as hey should not be now.

Gervais could have used a different term, and if he was that kind of person, no doubt he would have climbed down a bit by now. (“Time to show some humility, eh?” to quote Ed Miliband from earlier today.) His use of the word was ill-judged, though you will find me nowhere near the crowd of orchestrated shocked types lighting up the pitchforks. The words we need to find these days are reasoned ones for debate; it’s more offensive to read frothing rent-a-quote outrage than it is to see the word “cunt”.

Norway – jumping to conclusions

Labour MP Tom Harris shook up the sensitive elements of Twitter with his reaction to Norway’s bombing and shooting tragedy. His two tweets in question, which kickstarted the keyboard warrioring across Left and Right were:

“Even after Oslo, we’ll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by “foreign policy” or by “disrespect to the Prophet”.

“If I have unfairly accused militant Islamists for Oslo attacks I apologise and hope it does not interfere with their ongoing charity work.”

It doesn’t take too many Google searches to find blogs where conclusions (and prejudices) are well and truly exposed:

“The Norwegian people need to get rid of their Leftist treasonous government and display some of that old viking blood. Appeasing Islamic aggression hasn’t work. It’s time for Norway to stand against Islamic Imperialism!”

It is easy to wander around messageboards, forums, chatrooms, to see the thought processes which initially linked the attacks to Islamist terrorists, or linked somehow to al Qaeda. It tapped into assumptions and prejudices many of us shared. When I read the details of the news, I couldn’t help but groan. To a Facebook status implying it was Islamic terrorists, I leapt into automatic world-view keyboard warrior. “It was carried out by someone pissed off at the West invading their country,” I posted, fresh with the anti-Libya rage I have held since the start of that particular adventure. On a politics forum I visit, the implied assumption of an Islmaic attack hung around every post.

The man accused of carrying out both attacks. Anders Behring Breivik, does not have the appearance of a radicalised convert. It could be, as more details are known, that he is a crazed, lone individual whose actions come from deep seated concerns of his own. Nationalism, perhaps, such as it might exist in Norway. Despite the assumption jumping, it does not hold too many hallmarks of what would be called a ‘typical’ attack in the Madrid or Bali or London models.

Have we been conditioned, since 9 September 2011, into this automatic unease, this discreet prejudice? Tom Harris, of course, was flamed by the usual suspects who read what they wanted to read; he did not blame “Muslims”, if he actually blamed anyone at all. That does not absolve us of every accusation. The easy and convenient labelling comes from years of conditioning by the media, from whom ‘divide and rule’ retains its news gathering charm.

The existing threat from extremists on all sides keeps us vigil, aware, and ultimately frames how our Governments decide the levels of civil rights and freedoms we can enjoy. We have this situation completely wrong. If Breivik turns out to have no connections to Islamist terrorism, how we reconcile our own beliefs is one thing; how our Governments conclude reconsiderations of civil liberty legislation will be quite another.

From 140 characters to infinity…

21 years ago, the first Gulf War changed television and radio reporting for ever. CNN – not exactly storming ahead in its field – grew in stature and reputation with its one groundbreaking concept. Suddenly their raison d’etre made sense. Newspapers had the content, but did they have the reaction speeds, depth of commentary and instant replay? CNN defined and justified television news, something we now take for granted. Twenty-one years is a lifetime in broadcasting, and from CNN all those years ago, May 2011 has witnessed the next great revolution in news reporting. It has come not from the “mainstream” media (of which, arguably, CNN is now firmly part), or even the “first generation” Internet names. For this month saw Twitter justify its reputation and support amongst thousands of loyal users, in addition to getting grudging respect from the news organisations it has ultimately usurped.

This tweet is the iconic symbol of Twitter’s “maturity moment”. The one man – Sohaib Athar – inadvertently became the poster boy for all that the live-tweeting, micro-blogging site could offer the world. Real time, uncensored, un-monitored reporting of events, often innocent and natural, more often than not trivial, all of which could be the snowballs to roll down and create headlines. Twitter was always a curiosity, and in many ways it has become much more one now, though it has also given the Internet the shine of respectability it needed in the field of news. Just as CNN did in the 90s, now Twitter has shown the credible side of its quirky selling point.

Twitter began to buzz with news that President Obama would be making a very serious announcement at 2145 Eastern Time (about 0230/0300 GMT). Thirty minutes later, Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff for Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted his exclusive .

“So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”

Between 2145 and 2215, Twitter was alive with rumours, jokes, repeated jokes, claims, and counter-claims. The Twitter organisation itself reported that by the time President Obama was confirming the news – over an hour and twenty minutes later – 6,000 messages a second were being written with his name. That totals countless millions sent in the period from the initial rumour to the rolling MSM analysis.

Twitter has been the place to go for so-called “live tweeting” or “dual screening” for some time now. In the UK, episodes of The Apprentice, Match of the Day, or even Great British Menu, can be enjoyed by watching thousands of viewers giving thumbs up or down whilst the show is on air. Writer Mark Gatiss has said watching programmes he has written (such as Doctor Who) with Twitter on his phone “would drive him mad”. Soon-enough feedback (the notices and reviews in next day’s papers) has now become
instant, running parallel to the programme itself. The “Osama day” on Twitter went one step further – effectively running ahead of the news agenda and laughing when traditional television journalists jogged towards them sweating and panting.

The Mumbai bombings was the first real event which suggested Twitter’s potential. CNN, ironically enough, commented on how the programme was “ahead” of them, with the news-gatherer having to be careful with every detail and source it received. With little filtering (and no checking for repeated jokes), Twitter can forge ahead where broadcasters rarely can tread. Whilst this is an issue, it’s also a bonus. No filtering, no censuring – the most gruesome of videos and the most belly-hurting jokes, all streaming down the news-feed in a collection of views, news and opinions. During the anti-cuts marches in London, protesters used Twitter and Suki to plan sites to gather and police hotspots to avoid. Whilst watching the UK’s first ever leaders debates, the “Iagreewithnick” meme blossomed into a T-shirt slogan and backhanded compliment.

Internet historians like to mark exactly when new phenomena or language became popular. Who wanted their kittens to speak in Creole first? When did someone first notice the bloke who couldn’t carry all his limes? When did emos start taking photographs at funny angles, and where did they go before tumblr? 2 May 2011 is the cyber-historians newest milestone. It’s the day newsgathering and reporting became something new – deeper whilst still giddy, stronger though unpredictable. Years after having its existence questioned by critics and sceptics, the newest darling of the 2.0 generation has grown into a very lucrative (and beautiful) swan. From the alternative to status updates, to the latest version of ticker tape…And I still find the time to update people on how crowded the 1647 Leyland service back home is every workday.

V for Vendetta, W for William Hague, X for…

In case you have been living proper lives outside teh interweb, and/or watching Glee or reading “A Journey”, you may have noticed that the United Kingdom’s outpost of the world wide web has done asplode with blogging controversy.

A summary. Guido Fawkes – libertarian blogger who did for Draper and McBride – posted an entry asking if the taxpayer should stump up the cost for William Hague to employ another advisor, implying that the reasons behind the employment may have something in common with Lord Mandleson and his own staff. (Fans of Carry On films may want to run through the implied suggestion with anyone who isn’t).

Fast forward to today, and William Hague’s advisor has resigned. In a statement from the Foreign Secretary, all suggestions that he is homosexual are thrown to the winds, and genuinely shocking admissions about his wife Ffion suffering numerous miscarriages are made in full detail. From some dark part of the internet came suggestions that the marriage was a sham; even Guido didn’t wander into this particular domain (and quite right too).

Twitter has gone into meltdown, although the twitteratti always do. Influential conservative blogger Iain Dale has written a thoughtful piece on how he feels being a blogger during this rather dark moment for the British political blogosphere.

Through Twitter I stood somewhere in the middle on all this. Guido is one of the best of the current bloggers, treading where the mainstream media often dare not venture. He has made errors – the Newsnight mess for one – and this is perhaps an issue with a hint of a shark being prepared for jumping. This is not some “typical Tory sleaze”, as I have seen some suggest on Twitter, as though Guido is part of a mainstream conservative conspiracy. Much more innuendo than appeared in the original piece can be found in messageboards and chatrooms far removed from Order-Order. Typically, a bogeyman has been found for the wider net’s failings.

Hague’s statement is brave and emotional. There is no justification for the intensity or insensitive nature of the worst attacks on him and his wife. The political bloggers who see themselves as salacious or daring should realise that being headline news can be an unsettling and upsetting experience. It is not possible to hide from the glare of on-line onslaughts against you, with message boards and newspaper articles often never removed from a site’s archive history. The personal smears on Hague had no relation to the original piece, and should rightly be condemned.

Iain Dale is right to ask the bloggers in this country to relax somewhat, to regroup. Paul Staines – the real name behind Guido – is to make a comment tomorrow.

Fawkes’ blog is still important and integral to the British political discourse. There are only a small number of blogs which are absolute must reads on-line, for even in the virtual world there are market leaders and big names. This incident should remind everyone nonetheless that there are real life consequences to on-line behaviour. Nobody on-line should consider themselves the absolute truth on any subject.

Lies spread across status updates far faster than the truth has time to log on to its Twitter feed, to update Churchill. Blogging and bloggers, in this country at least, may need to still grow and develop before it realises the full implications of that truism.

Liam Rhodes

Liam Rhodes is a conservative blogger and social media communicator…During a recent spate of discussions and arguments on Twitter about his personal politics and definition of conservatism in the age of the Coalition.

I offered to ask Liam some questions following on from these discussions. This is what came from the questions…

You can find me on Twitter @doktorb, or Liam at @LiamRhodes.


So, Liam, thanks for this, for those who may not have seen you on Twitter before now, it may be best if we just find out a little about you…..

Well, I’m 21. I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party since 2005. I sought election in a difficult ward as a borough councillor in 2010. I’m also the blogger behind http://www.onenationtory.com.

…Good, right, on Twitter you have been taking part in a continuing discussion about whether you are a “capital C” Conservative. How would you describe yourself ?

I’m a liberal one nation Conservative. I have always been a liberal, one nation Conservative.

That is, I am a small ‘c’ Conservative. I believe in Government providing both a ladder and a safety net whilst the State is smaller than it was in the Labour years to make room for private sector, sustainable growth. I also believe that the State should leave people alone and let them get on with their lives. I am an advocate of equal rights – but also free speech.


One recent tweet from you said you had become more progressive over the years, how would you describe this process?

A very painful personal journey for me resulted in the anti-progressivism to begin with. It’s a difficult question for me to answer.


Did the Coalition agreement change your opinion specifically? Or was this a process already in motion before the election?

I support the coalition because it is first and foremost in the national interest, and I believe it is where the Conservative Party has an opportunity to further change.

Would defecting away from the Conservative Party ever be an option for you? What are your opinions of people who do defect parties?

Not unless the Conservative Party took a big turn to the right. My opinions of people who defect are not negative; I understand that in some circumstances, people’s hearts change.

In terms of specific policies, the Coalition are accused of slashing spending on public services at the least appropriate time. Are you concerned by the cuts to public services?

I put my faith in the Coalition to protect the front-line services and the most vulnerable.

To what degree is the current Council Tax scheme “fair” ?

I believe Council Tax system is fair because it is progressive in the sense that older people pay less and people who live alone get a discount.

At what level should, for example, Child Tax Credits or Child Benefits be cut? Are you afraid the Labour Government spent too much on such benefits, or is “too much” not a problem when dealing with child and family welfare?

I believe Child Tax Credits and benefits should be means-tested further, and I am disheartened by the fact that we didn’t act on this when we had the opportunity. I am very concerned that Labour created a means of Statism whereby people felt they were dependent on the State. They favour State dependence because it results in more votes for them – and they believe in a large State.

Instead of handing out these forms of benefits, it makes much more sense to me to cut tax.


Should there be an English Parliament?

No. I simply don’t believe we need one. It would cost a heck of a lot and there is no added value to balance that cost.

What is a “living wage” in your opinion?

I would support an increase in the minimum wage to £6 with inflation, but not during the current economic climate. I would never support a ‘living wage’ because it would result in economic failure. No business will employ some unskilled workers for £7 or more per hour. It’s simply unsustainable.


Which former British Prime Minister do you most admire?

Margaret Thatcher. Not because of her social Conservatism – far from it. Because she fought for what she believed in and she saved the British economy from turmoil.


And finally…..What is it about Twitter you like so much?

I like the fact that you can be in contact people who share common interests. I certainly don’t like it when things get personal. For example, I’ve just been called ‘arrogant’. Oh well!

((This interview was carried out by email. Questions and responses have been re-ordered and edited for space))

Academy Awards

It’s that time of year again. Yes, the draw for UEFA 2012 is only 6 days awa…Oh, right, the Oscars. And after months of speculation surrounding the “opening up” of the Academy Awards to more “mainstream” movies than in years past, things haven’t changed to my mind that drastically at all…

Best Film is now open to 10 movies, increased from 5. The smart money will be on Avatar, natch, which suggests Best Director will go to Kathryn Bigelow for Iraqi invasion drama The Hurt Locker. Newspaper copy written right there, without much effort.

Of the others nominated for Best Film, Precious appears to have been far better received in the US than the UK, A Serious Man may well be the best Coen Brothers film not to receive the Oscar for Best Film, and District 9 is the only true “popcorn attractor” to get a nod despite the opening up of the field supposedly was done for that very purpose.

Great news for fans of The Thick Of It will be very pleased to see the film adaption, In The Loop, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Or as writer Armando Iannucci put it;

Bloomin heck. In The Loop nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Bonk me purple.

Okay, so neither Thick Of It, nor In The Loop, are quite Yes, Minister, but that has a lot to do with the times we live in. Yes, Gordon Brown, you unstable Stalinist walking disaster, I am talking about the likes of you with your sudden pre-election conversion to a pro-Labour voting system.

Anyhoo, the acting awards. Best Actor is probably a defo for George Clooney, whose role in “feelgood film of the moment” Up in the Air has been received in the same swooning fashion as all his recent roles. I must be the only one – or is it because I’m a bloke? – who wonders why Clooney is not treated with the “same old same old” criticism given to Hugh “Bumbling Englishman Out Of Context” Grant?

If you want to put a cheeky fiver on the Actor slot, I’d go for Jeff Bridges. You heard.

Best Actress will probably be Meryl Streep, because the Academy hasn’t awarded her in at least 5 minutes and it’s a kind of Hollywood by-law. If Americans have by-laws. They probably do. It’s the same one, or at least somehow associated, which has helped Helen Mirren receive a nod for a film about being married to Tolstoy. No, wait, sorry, “It’s about marriage, not being married” as I heard her explain to marshmallow-brained Christine on The One Show last week. Adrian seemed to be the only person bar Mirren who had even heard of Tolstoy. Bless. His long-long-long-lost decedent is standing as UKIP candidate for Witney, didn’t you know?

(Tolstoy, not Adrian Chiles. Can you imagine…)

Das weiße Band/The White Ribbon is the runaway (if that’s quite the right word) favourite for Best Film not in the English Language. Being a bit of a geek, I am more interested in the run down of films which didn’t even make the short-list in this category, so in no particular order, and with thanks to Wiki, here is an arbitrary list of films which didn’t make the cut. What is the Internet for – as Stephen Fry would no doubt say – if it is not for suggesting you all go out and find obscure movies in a language you’ve never heard spoken before?

* J’ai tué ma mère / I Killed My Mother [Canada, is an exposé on the complexity of the mother and son bond]
* 梅兰芳 / Méi Lánfāng / Forever Enthralled [China, follows the life of Mei Lanfang, one of China’s premiere opera performers]
* Келін / Kelin [Kazakhstan, ‘Looking like a cross between a goth goddess and a fairy-tale queen, Kelin (Gulsharat Zhubayeva) is about to be married. High in the Altai Mountains, her father bargains with two suitors who are each vying for her hand. Unfortunately, her true love, Mergyen (Kuandyk Kystykbaev), loses out to the richer bachelor, Baktashi (Erzhan Nurymbet). Before losing the competition, however, Mergyen takes a blood oath to eventually claim Kelin for his own’]
* El baile de la victoria / The Dancer and The Thief [Spain, ‘attractively shot, energetic romp, and a likeable genre-bending tale of crime and love among the lost and marginalised of post-Pinochet Chile’]
* Samson and Delilah [Australia, in English and Warlpiri, which as you know is one of the Ngarrkic languages]

All that aside, then, what else? Are these radical and different Academy Awards than usual? Is the likelihood of The Hurt Locker winning anything to be cheered? Will Terry Gilliam be upset at all for the almost total blanking of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, picking up as it does nominations for the “technical awards” of Art Direction, and Best Costume? Are we to be cheered at all by the 4 nominations – count them, FOUR – for Star Trek?

Insofar as these awards mean anything, it at least suggest cinema is someway healthy. Somehow there exists screenwriting and ideas away from franchises and sequels, torture porn and anything “staring” Will Ferrell. Sensible money should be put down this year, surprises seem abundant in the nomination process, but this is no “Heath Ledger” year, this seems to be a set up for someone saying “The Winner is…” without too many gasps at the end…

Truth Be Told

Sky Sports News is going to be fun for a while. As much as the latest speculation about Rodallega or Hulk interests me, the Transfer Window real-time countdown which flashes up on screen is the least intentional cruel televisual feature since that 10-year old girl had the temerity to forget the lyrics of her favourite song in front of an audience of millions. The strap-line might as well say “LOOK HOW FAR PAYDAY IS YOU IRRESPONSIBLE SPIRAL-COCKED FREAK”.

Work had certain charms today. Although like most office bound types my main priorities was e-mail sorting, desk diary fathoming, and booking holidays for the rest of the year. I just hope the forthcoming general election is not in June, as that week was rejected. Hear that Gordon, come on, be nice.

On the subject of the next election, for most of the population the phrase “kerryout” probably means nothing at all. It could well be the first of the many election-based techniques used on-line free from most electoral law or media manipulation. Don’t switch off when I explain, please, because “kerryout” is a Tory-backed Twitter campaign, with the aim of defeating ultraloyal Labour Whip Kerry McCarthy in the Bristol East constituency.

It is not a campaign without flaws. Obviously I would rather Tory PPC Adeela Shafi did not win, as LibDem Michael Popham is in second place with a far more realistic chance of winning. In addition the “kerryout” campaign isn’t without its less mature followers. However it is encouraging to see social and citizen media being used in the UK for elections and democratic campaigning; there was comparison around the election of President Obama suggesting Britain was far behind the USA in terms of internet-based electioneering.

Like so many ultra-loyal, never questioning Labour MPs – Preston’s own Mark Hendrick among them – Kerry appears to be in complete denial whenever someone mentions the increasing gap between rich and poor, the ballooning deficit, decreasing standards in primary schools, selling University students into debt slavery, and of course her own personal dubious expenses claims. From the Labour Party of McBride/Draper “smear” emails, “kerryout” is fairly harmless.

Not that I will want to spend the whole three, or four, or five months, focusing on the battle in the eastern suburbs of Bristol. I’ve got to make it to this month’s pay day unscathed before most other priorities. Once upon a time, in living memory, I was forever walking home from supermarkets with bulging bags digging into my hands; now I’m somewhat too eager to nip into Tesco for whatever snacks and pre-packaged meal deals I can wolf down in between brews. Like the lost habits of buying Private Eye and keeping a diary, I’ve long since stopped being eager to steam fish or prepare slow-cooked stewes. Here’s to belated New Year’s Resolutions with some relation to this.

And without the real-time clock ticking in the corner, thanks.